In the late ‘90s we moved to upstate New York so our children could attend a Waldorf school. Not long after a child who attended the same school was tragically killed in a car accident. Her family was very involved in the school and, while dealing with their own grief and loss, reached out to this community to join them in grieving and acknowledging her brief but beautiful life. Several fellow dads came together to build Emma a coffin, friends and classmates came to sit with the body, which they laid out peacefully in the home for three days. People sang and read to her, and helped prepare the home and property for the service and burial there on the farm. Many people came to the service and there was much music and many tears. The school juggling club juggled over her grave. The family was not alone in grief, and they took the time to be with Emma’s body and to welcome those who loved them to be part of her transition. It was the most moving death experience I’ve had in my life.
Modern culture has distanced us from death. We move around constantly, so we don’t often have deep relationships in the local community or even family. As soon as someone dies, the funeral director is called and the body disappears within hours. We move on quickly, and grief and loss must often push their way into consciousness in random moments, demanding acknowledgment.
Unless by personal choice, no one should have to die or lose a loved one alone. Our understanding of the process of death has grown since Elizabeth Kübler-Ross identified the six stages of dying. Hospice is widely available, making it possible for the terminally ill to approach death without pain and with skilled support for loved ones and caregivers, and for loved ones to have support in caregiving.
I recently heard of a group working to educate people about how to navigate the dying process and help those who have lost someone address their grief. The people of Arizona Community Deathcare are volunteers, educators, healthcare workers and compassionate humans working to create a culture where everyone knows what to do when facing death and grief. They offer informational classes, facilitated conversations, advocacy and policy consulting for hospitals and care homes (can you keep your loved one’s body at home and hold a home vigil and/or funeral? Yes, you can). They offer guidance for families curious about caring for a body after death, whether for emotional, spiritual, religious, financial or environmental reasons. I met for a conversation with Dani LaVoire and Michelle Souza to learn about AZCD.
Dani has been a homebirth midwife for 20 years, focusing on birthing and women’s health. Michelle joined AZCD as a death doula. In 2012 Dani attended her first stillbirth, and through this experience she realized that she lacked the wisdom to support the family through its difficult time. She knew the family well and saw how its social circle crumbled due to the lack of cultural traditions and practices around death. “I realized that if I’m going to continue doing birth work I also need to start learning about death work, because they are both threshold-walking.” Dani started volunteering in hospice, sitting vigil while people were dying, and helping families in caregiving and transitioning.
“It’s almost like (birth) laboring, sitting at the bedside of the dying, helping everyone in the room understand that they can trust the process and not try to fix it. It’s the same language as birth.” She joined an organization called the National Home Funeral Alliance and found that there is a movement for home funerals. Now Dani works as a midwife and a death doula, and travels around the state teaching death care.
AZCD is now statewide, a helpful resource for those who want to provide a home vigil or funeral. Its website includes all the state statutes relevant to having a loved one’s body at home, and points out that embalming is not legally required. Families have rights, and AZCD is helping make sure that people know there are options, resources and ease of access for them. There is also a Death Cafe group that meets monthly at the Peregrine Bookstore to talk about all things death and grieving, which I’ll cover in an upcoming issue.
Sitting with a body at home encourages us to go through a transition in our hearts and minds. There is time to say things, read something meaningful, make music. You come to a place where you are ready to let go, maybe more easily and organically than if the funeral home shows up an hour after the death and takes the body away. When Dani’s grandmother died they brought the body home and had two days with her. There was time for everyone to sit and process and to say sometimes hard things. The children came and could touch the body and lay flowers around it. Family structure was woven into this vigil.
Dani has not attended most of the funerals that she has assisted in, but she has provided support and advice over the phone about after-death care for family, community and loved ones. It’s important to note that the family should know about the options and make arrangements for less conventional options before an anticipated death. This shields the family from having to advocate for themselves when they should be making space for grief.
The idea is that the loved ones do the work as part of the grieving process, but things must be planned and put in place in advance. “It’s spiritual, it’s religious, it’s psychologically sound. It supports the nervous system through grief and trauma. There are so many elements of caring for the body at home that are important to who we are as humans and how we process huge changes in our reality.”
AZCD will be hosting a six-session symposium starting in January called “Death Care for a Strong Community.” People may attend any or all of the standalone sessions, which will take place once a month on the second floor of the Elks Theatre building. The cost per session is $25, or you can attend all six for $125. The topics are:
Community Death Care and Home Funerals
Hospice and Palliative Care
What is a Death Doula?
Green Burial Options
Grief and Community
To learn more about Arizona Community Deathcare and register for the symposium, visit www.azcommunitydeathcare.org.